ATLANTA — Kids, if you want to grow up to make game-changing football plays, like Carolina Panthers rookie cornerback Melvin White did Sunday, here’s the first step:
Get your homework in on time. It might not be sexy, but it was worth an interception and the Panthers’ first touchdown in a division-clinching 21-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
The Panthers were down 10-0 midway through the second quarter when White and safety Mike Mitchell noticed the Falcons in a particular formation. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan threw exactly the pass they’d seen on video. White intercepted it 8 yards from the end zone, stumbled a bit, but managed to cross the goal line for a momentum-changing touchdown.
“When (Atlanta’s receivers) get inside the numbers, they like to run quick outs. It was all from film study – anticipating what was coming,” said White, who went undrafted last spring out of Louisiana-Lafayette.
White is the studious type. That’s part of why he’s earned so much respect from a veteran secondary that has welcomed him as far more than a journeyman.
“That’s part of his maturity. When we’re studying (game video) he’s always taking notes,” said Mitchell. “He pays attention, and to be able to apply that in a critical moment, that’s why I’m so proud of him. He’s going to be a great player.”
No one would have said that back in the spring, when White never heard his named called at the draft. But he stayed positive; coming up with an expression – “eat greedy” – as in don’t be afraid to find greatness.
He latched onto veteran cornerback Drayton Florence and became a sponge for anything and everything as far as advice.
“Drayton Florence took me under his wing from Day One. I got to learn so much from him. It’s rare for someone to play 10 years in this league; he’s got to know something,” White said.
“I learned how to be a pro – not just on the field, but off the field, too. If you have to right (attitude) about film, it’s easy.”
Well, not every-game easy. White had a mistake-filled Monday night game against the New England Patriots, the sort of trial-by-fire experience that could get a rookie worried about his job-security. He came to work after that game expecting the worst, and the reception was entirely different.
“I had a rough game – the pass interference and the hands-to-the-face” penalties, White recalled. “Even though I had that type of game, they were still behind me 100 percent. Nothing changed. Once I knew they had my back, that they didn’t treat me any different, and then I was sure I was home.”
Sunday was huge as far as time-and-situation. The Panthers were getting nothing done offensively. A Cam Newton screen pass to DeAngelo Williams gained 56 yards, but Williams fumbled at the tail of the play, giving the Falcons possession 4 yards in front of the end zone.
Two plays later, White sniffed out what Ryan had in mind and pounced.
“We knew that we needed to make something happen,” White said. “That was the whole thing coming on the field: ‘You’ve got to make a play. If we have to score on defense, then let’s score.’ “
Score he did and it left an impression all around the post-game locker room.
“He plays hard, he plays smart and he’s a competitor for us,” linebacker Luke Kuechly described. “That play really turned the game around for us.”
Rick Bonnell: (704) 358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell